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America's literary goldenboy gets it wrong

Richard Powers' previous novel, The Echo Maker, reviewed in these pages, gained him the National Book Award for fiction in the United States. In fact, Powers' novels have been attracting awards, prizes and plaudits since 1985 when his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was published. Since then he has established himself as one of the most inventive and challenging novelists writing in English today.

His previous novel required its readers to acquaint themselves with some basic ecological data and knowledge of neurological science. Earlier novels engaged with the chemistry of detergents and the microbiology of carcinogens.

The new novel pushes the boundaries as well. At its centre is a character called Russell Stone who used to be a successful writer of "creative non-fiction essays". After a brief period when leading magazines were prepared to pay big bucks for anything he produced, he found it increasingly difficult to write the kind of stuff that propelled him to modest fame. He discovered that some of the disguised subjects of his essays did not like the exposure arising from Stone's writing and rounded on him, threatening violence.

The non-fiction essays dry up and now Stone makes a small living copy-editing the subscriber contributions to the self-help magazine Becoming You. He quickly discovers that most writing is trash and that his employment will likely be steady.

By coincidence -- there are too many in this novel -- Stone gets a part-time job as an instructor on a writing course at an art school in Chicago. One of his students, Thassadit Amzwar, is a young female Algerian Berber refugee who seems spectacularly well-adjusted and radiates happiness. This is despite a family history of oppression and exile. Stone and her classmates are mystified, fascinated and uplifted by her.

In his efforts to understand her, Stone researches the history of the Algerian war of liberation and the subsequent downward spiral into civil and religious unrest. He takes to reading everything he can find about happiness in the hope of establishing if she is hypomanic (about to crack up) or hyperthymic (endlessly ebullient). He consults with an on-campus psychologist -- with whom he promptly falls in love -- as he furthers his research.

The novel has a second plot which features Thomas Kurton, a scientist and academic who has pioneered techniques for rapid gene signature reading. Kurton is professionally committed to genetic engineering or genomic manipulation for the purposes of securing disease-free longevity for all. He has had the foresight to arrange for his corpse -- should his demise be untimely -- to be sent to a cryonic suspension unit where his remains will await resuscitation.

Inevitably, Powers makes his plots converge. One of her fellow students attempts to rape Thassadit and the news coverage in Chicago brings her to Kurton's attention. She strikes him as an ideal experimental subject and, in due time, some of her eggs are harvested so that work on isolating the "happiness gene" can begin.

Locally, Powers' novel is engrossing but it is finally less than the sum of its parts. The line between ethics and genetics is too arbitrary and insufficiently blurred. Powers has written magnificently -- Gain and The Time of our Singing are astonishing novels. This one is a poor relation.

Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic

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Irish Independent